The Banality of Evil

-- a visit to KZ-Sachsenhausen


Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, all names permanently engraved in history... but for most people "Sachsenhausen" draws a blank. These days, the Houses of the Saxons is a sleepy suburb of Oranienburg, about one hour north of Berlin. But during World War II, the village was home to Konzentrationlager Sachsenhausen, one of the few vernichtungslager -- annihilation camps -- located on German soil.

Getting There

An uncomfortable reminder of a past that most Germans would prefer to forget about, I couldn't find a single guidebook that even noted the existence of the camp, and Berlin City Info certainly didn't know anything. I had originally been alerted to its existence by one of Philip Greenspun's excellent travel diaries, and after locating KZ-Sachsenhausen on a map of Europe's concentration camps I could begin to track my way to the site.

Lying at the edge of tariff zone C, Oranienburg is the terminus of the S-Bahn line S1, and regional trains RE5 and RB12 also pass on their way along the Nordbahn. The nearest station to the camp is, unsurprisingly, Sachsenhausen (Nordb.), but the only train that stops there is the hourly RB12. If you do get there, to get to the camp, take a right from the station platform and turn right again onto the footpath, following backward alongside the tracks. After about a kilometer you will reach a road called Straße der Nationen (the crossing has a death march memorial), turn left here and walk for a few hundred meters to the camp.

The other (slightly longer) way is to walk directly from Oranienburg station. Take the left exit, turn right and follow the scattered "Gedankstätte Sachsenhausen" (memorial site) signs to the camp. To get from KZ Sachsenhausen to Oranienburg, you can walk back on Straße der Nationen, cross the street and keep going until you reach the tracks, then turn left and follow them until Oranienburg station.

Despite the lack of advertising, the camp itself is quite nicely presented with a number of excellent exhibits, especially the newer post-DDR sections. Some of the older exhibits, however, are only in German (and occasionally Russian!). Nearly all the buildings on the site are authentic-looking reconstructions, many old building sites are only marked by stones. Entrance is free, and pamphlets in a number of languages explaining most aspects of the site can be picked up for 50 pfennigs at the bookshop.


The main gate

Those found here will be shot

One of the watchtowers
The construction of KZ-Sachsenhausen started in 1936 and it was officially taken into use in 1938. Originally built with the barracks arranged in a half-circle around the central tower, several expansions had to be hastily built to accommodate the swelling population. Many inmates were forced to do slave labor at the nearby Klinkerwerk brickworks, and there were also profitable side lines of money counterfeiting and ammunition manufacturing. While originally primarily a detention and transit camp, SS policy being to perform mass executions out of view in the East, in 1942 a small gas chamber and crematorium were added to facilitate killing small groups. Overall, over 100,000 people were killed in KZ-Sachsenhausen, mostly through hunger, disease and torture.

As the Red Army approached in 1945, the prisoners were marched off towards the North Sea in a death march that claimed over 6000 lives. After the camp's capture (and inclusion in the DDR), the Soviets immediately turned the tables and interned suspected Nazi functionaries in what now became Special Camp No. 7, killing another 12000 before the camp was closed in 1950.

Neglected for several decades afterward, in the 1960s the camp was refitted by the Communists and opened as a museum commemorating Anti-Fascistic Struggle, entirely neglecting all non-Communist victims. Israel protested sufficiently loudly that a Jewish Museum was soon opened on the grounds. After the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet-era camp was rediscovered, documented and added to the exhibits. Israel's prime minister Yitchak Rabin visited in 1992; several weeks afterward the Jewish Barracks were hit in an arson attack by neo-Nazis. At time of writing, construction of a new building devoted to the Soviet camp as well as the reconstruction of the gas chamber complex and the Klinkerwerk satellite camp (about 2 km NE of Sachsenhausen) is under way.


Prisoner mugshots

Starving Gypsy kid

Tattooed infant
The inmates of KZ-Sachsenhausen were a varied group. While a number of Jews were interned, mostly before 1942, the bulk of the population was political prisoners of various kinds, especially actual or suspected Communists, many rounded up in mass actions with little if any evidence against them. Other groups included "asocials" (artists, playwrights, etc), foreign nationals, homosexuals and Roma (Gypsies). In accordance with standard KZ practice, all inmates -- including children -- were tattooed with their ID numbers.


One of the barracks

Arson damage

Camp inmates were detained in barracks. Unheated in the winter, stifling in the summer, inmates were squeezed 3 together into a single 70-cm bed and permitted several minutes per day for washing (two cold fountains per 400 prisoners) and using the toilets. Regulations for camp life were detailed and the tiniest violations brutally punished: SS guards were known to suffocate prisoners to death by inserting their heads into the foot washbasins or toilets. Another favourite punishment was locking large groups of prisoners into the broom closets in the summer, usually resulting in several deaths from heat exhaustion.


Entrance to the prison


One of the isolation cells
As if merely being in a concentration camp weren't enough, for difficult cases the camp included a special prison barracks with isolation cells and interrogation (read: torture) facitilies. It was not unusual for prisoners to spend months alone and blind shackled in tiny cells. One of the prison's inmates was pastor Martin Niemöller, who famouly remarked about not saying anything while they took away his neighbors and nobody being left to say something when they came for him. (Niemöller was later transferred to Dachau, where he died.)

Poles for suspending prisoners

Drawing by a prisoner

Torture rack
Prison regulations extensively detailed permissible methods of torture; quite a few of the exhibit texts seem to be more annoyed by the fact that the guards occasionally exceeded the rules than by the fact that they were using torture in the first place. Official favorites included suspension from poles (resulting in bone dislocation and a slow, painful death), beating with iron truncheons and whipping (not allowed on bare buttocks until the regulations were amended in 1942).


Operating table

A trail of blood

Cart for moving corpses
The other special barracks was the infirmary for the dead and dying. Medical experiments, including vivisection (dissection of live victims), were carried out in the operating room. Downstairs were facilities for storing corpses.

Station Z

Gas chamber drain

The ruins of Station Z

Crematorium door
In 1942, the additional section known only as Station Z was constructed. Designed for murdering people clinically and quickly, Station Z consisted of a gas chamber, a firing range and a crematorium. While small in comparison with the death factories of places like Auschwitz, on several occasions up to 5000 people in a several days were executed here.

At time of writing, only the ruins of Station Z are left, and since the ground underneath them is subsiding the area is roped off. A reconstruction of the area is in the works.

Mass Graves

Sign to mass graves

Bodies in a trench

Death march memorial
The exact number of the Nazis' victims will never be known, as the bodies were cremated and, on the approach of the Red Army, some 8 or 9 tons of human ashes were dumped into a nearby canal. The victims of the death march, immediately before the liberation of the camp, are better commemorated with memorial stones set up along the route. The Soviets were less careful and left several mass graves in the vicinity of the camp, which have been duly (and perhaps even slightly disporportionately) marked.